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ORANGE COUNTY

Afghan heritage stirs urge to help

July 04, 2008|DANA PARSONS

As a girl, Parisa Popalzai learned that her heritage contained the stuff of fairy tales, that she was in fact descended from Afghan royalty. Imagine, a 19th century emir in the family.

Her family left Afghanistan when she was 4, and she's so Americanized now at 33 that her lineage makes more for fun conversation than for any sense of entitlement. Besides, when you work in a sandwich and yogurt shop -- which she did for a time as a teenager in Redlands -- you are officially working-class.

Whatever royalty she enjoys now comes from living in Orange County with a husband and 18-month-old son and having a job with a consulting firm.

Nothing very regal about that.

But the homeland beckons. Not so much with a call to return but with a voice Popalzai hears from within telling her that she can help her war-weary countrymen. That she must help them.

In a few weeks, her family will visit Afghanistan. Popalzai will eyeball two projects that connect the dots in her life from Kabul to Costa Mesa. One is a school that her aunt set up for disabled youngsters and that Popalzai hopes to sustain through a nonprofit organization she's establishing in California. She also has translated a teachers' guide that she'll deliver to the school and distribute throughout the country.

Project No. 2 is a private university in Jalalabad that she helped start with her brother-in-law and some of his colleagues. It offers master's degrees in business administration as well as other diploma programs. At its inception in 2007, she merely offered her brainpower to her brother-in-law and his colleagues.

"I got more and more involved," Popalzai says, smiling, "to the point I'm now the president of the university."

Not as crazy as it sounds for a woman living in Costa Mesa. With a doctorate in Islamic studies and a master's in management science from UCLA's Anderson School of Management, Popalzai can do the kind of online fundraising, grant-writing, curriculum planning and accounting that a new school needs. Popalzai jokes that she even has a hand in the university's website.

Yes, she has asked herself if she should be in Afghanistan to pursue the twin passions.

The answer, she says, is not now. "I feel like I can do a lot here, so I don't need to make that sacrifice yet," she says as we talk in a shopping center near an Irvine lake. "I feel I am a bit disconnected [from the university project], but my main purpose for the school is to find funding for it. For that I need to be here."

Which isn't to say she doesn't think about the country that has seen much torment and bloodshed in the last 30 years. "It does come to mind, and I try to bring it to mind," she says, "so I don't get lost in the Irvines and forget what's going on in the rest of the world. But not just Afghanistan. I think of people in Iraq, in Darfur. I don't put boundaries on people I care about."

Even at 33, the full circle of her life is apparent. Her family fled Afghanistan in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded and targeted the elite class. Her mother was among the country's first female doctors and her father was a businessman.

Now the little girl who fled with her parents is grown up and casting her sights homeward.

But it isn't solely royal heritage that spurs her, she says. The family legacy is a source of pride "but something my mom thought we should not lose was that we came from a family committed to public service. She talked about the old days of royalty, but also said her great-grandfather built roads, and "my grandmother started a clinic for women and educated them about family planning."

What wasn't always clear to Popalzai during the years of pursuing academic degrees and getting a job now is in sharper focus.

"I always had that moral compass that keeps me in mind to say, 'I need to do something. I can't sit back,' " she says.

"I probably have sat back a little too much in the past while going through school, but now when I look back, I wasn't ready to do anything and my country wasn't ready to accept any help. But now I think they are. The country is tired of war and wants to move forward."

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Dana Parsons can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

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